The hourlong pilot of Paramount+’s 1923the only episode of the Yellowstone prequel made available to critics, is less a template for a compelling ongoing series and more a very loose assemblage of things that are apparently fascinating creator Taylor Sheridan this week.
Indigenous reeducation schools! The Tsavo Man-Eaters of Kenya! Grazing rights!
The Bottom Line
Ford and Mirren are good, but the plot needs corralling.
Maybe the pieces of 1923 will come together eventually and perhaps they’ll even come together quickly — again, I’ve seen only one episode — but in the short run, it’s unlikely that Sheridan’s carefully cultivated core audience will care. Between the star-studded cast led by Harrison Ford and Helen Mirren, the familiar wide-open Big Sky vistas and periodic totemic recitations of the name “Dutton,” 1923 immediately offers plenty to be curious (and potentially irritated) about.
Ford and Mirren play Jacob and Cara DUTTON — any and all mentions of the last name “Dutton” feel uttered in all-caps as dramatic irony shorthand for adding “You know, like in Yellowstone in 100 years” — owners of a thriving cattle ranch in Montana. Since Ford and Mirren are playing a couple realizing the hardships of what they hoped was a remote utopia, 1923 is clearly a Mosquito Coast prequel as well.
Jacob arrived in 1894 and found himself raising his brother James’ — the “Like Tim McGraw in 1883!” is implied — sons John (James Badge Dale) and Spencer (Brandon Sklenar). Also in the busy Dutton clan is John’s son Jack (Darren Mann), eager to be part of the family’s ranching legacy and to marry the slightly more prim-and-proper Elizabeth (Michelle Randolph).
Folks at the Montana Livestock Association are worried about a lack of grazing space for their cattle and about the incursion of sheep run by the local sheepherders, led by Jerome Flynn’s Banner — a rivalry that ties back to the old country (or old countries, since it’s a clash between Scots and Irish).
Meanwhile, out in the presumably Montana wilderness, we meet Teonna (Aminah Nieves), an Indigenous teen facing abuse at a residential boarding school run by the stern Father Renaud (Sebastian Roché) — I’m choosing to believe that the “Renaud” means that the series is also a prequel to The Chocolate War — and overseen by the vicious Sister Mary (Jennifer Ehle).
And then there’s a storyline off in Africa, where an initially unidentified mustachioed man is hunting big game and repressing the trauma of his service in the Great War.
Just as latent scars from the Civil War were central to the psychology of 1883World War I is as pervasive as the backstory of 1923 as Prohibition and the looming Great Depression are to its inevitable future. It’s all tied together with Sheridan’s trademark fixation with man’s inherent sadistic disregard for … well, everything. As Isabel May recites in the series opening voiceover, “Violence has always haunted this family,” which in this case feels like a mighty big understatement. As Sheridan presents it, violence is foundational to the DNA of the American dream, a strain of our ingrained identity that we’re capable of inflicting on the land, the people who previously occupied the land and one that we’re capable of exporting globally as well.
The more diffuse the 1923 pilot gets, the more speculatively concerned I get.
When it’s just on the solid footing of all things Dutton — grimly determined older men, rebellious and potentially troublesome younger men, and the confident and supportive women around them — the 1923 pilot is thoroughly watchable. Director Ben Richardson is a regular within the Sheridan universe as both director and cinematographer, and he’s an expert with this world’s visual grammar, even the parts of it that irk me, like the far-too-tidy production design throughout. He knows how to turn on a dime from picturesque shots of small horses against the towering sky and herds of livestock moving across the vast plains to tight close-ups of scruffy men and bustling women opining about the nobility of the land and whatnot. The TV critic in me wants to emphasize — not that the Taylor Sheridan groupies care — that every single thing that 1883 and 1923 attempt to do was done better and more efficiently in Amazon’s The English.
Ford, easing comfortably into the character actor phase of his career that he’d probably have preferred began back in the ’80s, growls with portentous weight and gets somber value out of every inch of his craggy face. Introduced rifle-in-hand, but still conveying ample necessary sentiment, Mirren is a fine foil, though she boasts the sort of troweled-on, exaggerated accent that one might dare to quibble with were it not being executed by one of the unimpeachably great actors of our time (see also Dame Judi Dench in Belfast). Thus far, Dale (and onscreen wife Marley Shelton) feel generally underutilized and Timothy Dalton, who chews scenery in the show’s trailer, hasn’t made his first appearance.
The stuff at the residential school is just nonstop sadism and, while I’m sure it’s accurate sadism and I’m sure there’s value in teaching insulated Yellowstone viewers about these schools, the scenes feel like exactly the sort of exploitative reproducing of trauma — by white writers and directors, no less — that concerns viewers when slavery or the Holocaust are treated comparably. Perhaps once that storyline becomes more than verbal abuse, whippings, blood and tears, it will be more convincingly integrated. Oh, and Ehle is wildly overqualified for this “barbaric nun” role, so I hope Sister Mary gets more interesting in a hurry.
And as for the scenes in Africa? Well, I got that Sheridan saw The Ghost and the Darkness and read some Hemingway, but so far the show’s self-serious take on colonialism borders on silly, and two things in the final five minutes that were supposed to be shocking made me laugh out loud in ways that were definitely not intentional.
The unevenness has its advantage, though: Most of the 1923 pilot is a mismatched enigma, but the pieces I like make me more curious than I ever was about Yellowstone or 1883. After watching only one hour, I guess my review boils down to, “We’ll have to wait and see.”